Photojournalist Harry Mattison on war and borders

war and borders
Harry Mattison shared his photoraphy on Central American immigration on Sept. 11, and discussed warzones and country borders. Photo by Kali Hoffman, photo editor

Photojournalist Harry Mattison visited Chapman’s campus to share his collection of photos and the stories that represent the moments in time he captured with his camera on Sept. 11. The issues he presented at the event, “A Photographer in the World: Harry Mattison on Borders,” were centered around immigration in the United States.

“The murder of American nuns in Salvador, the massacre of the entire village of Mozote, soldiers displaying their dismembered victims on the road,” Mattison said at the event. “These moments are artifacts of my own relationship to war’s atrocity.”

Mattison worked for Time Magazine between 1977 and 1996 and photographed Central America, Lebanon and South Africa during his time there. English and creative writing graduate students Sam Risak and Ariel Banayan were some of the event’s many attendees who were emotionally moved by Mattison’s work.

“His work was amazing, puncturing and visceral,” Banayan said. “I really felt it.”

Risak and Banayan respected Mattison’s integration of politics into his art to create change.

“Seeing how he was able to create change through his art was impactful for me,” Risak said. “I really want to be able to use my art as a platform.”

Mattison’s artwork from Central America included photos of dead civilians shot by soldiers, funerals, buildings destroyed by bombings, the living conditions of civilians and portraits of the men, women and children in the city.

He said his most notable work was shot in Nicaragua, where he photographed the bombing of Esteli in 1978. As the civil war between the national guard and the civilians persisted in Central America during the 1970s, it forced many of its citizens to migrate.

“Central Americans typically migrate due to environment, crime and economic survival issues,” Mattison told The Panther. “Gang violence, dispossession of land on which they lived and urbanization forces people to leave. They can’t feed their families and they fear for their safety.”

Sociology professor Victoria Carty, who discusses topics like social movements, immigration and inequality in her courses, shared a similar perspective on Central American migration and added that many emigrate due to desperation, violence, gangs, the drug trade and poverty.

“People are getting pushed out rather than wanting to come to the United States,” Carty told The Panther. “They see no other option and want safety for themselves and their families.”

Immigrants largely ask for political protection from other countries due to race or religious persecution. Mattison said that seeking asylum in another country gives marginalized communities an opportunity for a better life.

“When I was down on the border, there were people with rifles who would hunt and kill immigrants trying to cross through the desert,” he said. “We found out there were others who would put rat poisoning in the water we left out.”

According to Latinx and Latin American Studies professor Ruben Espinoza, it’s difficult for Central Americans to emigrate because most have to cross at least three different borders: Guatemala, Mexico and the United States.

“When there is no asylum to seek, people sleep on the streets for months,” Mattison said. “There was no room in the shelters.”

The journey to the American border isn’t easy because the Mexican government is just as harsh as the United States’ when it comes to crossing borders, Espinoza said.

“In the past, these immigrants would be considered asylum-seekers,” Espinoza said. “But today, they’re treated as undocumented immigrants trying to sneak in.”

The Supreme Court recently ruled to support the Trump administration’s initiative that enforces Central American migrants, who pass through a third-country, to apply for refugee status there before being allowed to cross the U.S. border, according to Carty.

“As of now, Central Americans coming from Guatemala will have to apply in Mexico first and if Mexico says ‘no,’ then they can apply in the United States,” Carty said.

Mattison hoped his photo showcase – that depicted Central American citizens, their daily experiences and the deaths they face from war – would reach millions to prompt a deeper understanding of the situation in Central America and spread awareness of America’s role in it.

“Militarization is not a solution. Force and violence upon people in need is not a solution. The military is creating fear around us to separate us, and we are not separate,” Mattison said. “What we can do that is nonviolent is accepting and loving people who are suffering. If we act on this, we have a future.”